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The Winter 2013 issue of the Luskin Forum is now available to read online. Print versions of the magazine are available inside the Luskin School of Public Affairs. For those who have opted to receive the magazine mailed to their homes, the copies should be arriving soon. If you'd like to receive a copy of the Luskin Forum, please contact us at: email@example.com. Click here to read the Luskin Forum online now.
The following story runs as part of the Winter 2013 Luskin Forum:
Shift/Perspective: Marijuana Policy
With voters in Washington and Colorado deciding to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, America’s drug policy is evolving like never before. Public Policy professor Mark Kleiman and Social Welfare professor Bridget Freisthler have tracked our changing relationship with marijuana from two different angles.
Kleiman is an expert on drug and crime policy whose books, such as When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment and Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know, provide clear-headed, no-nonsense analysis and policy solutions that work. After spending much of her career looking at the ways liquor stores and bars affect the children and families that live near them, Freisthler is pursuing a five-year study funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse to track similar information for medical marijuana dispensaries. We asked them to use their unique perspectives to shed light on the issue.
It seems like there’s a growing consensus that it’s time to rethink how our nation approaches marijuana use. What has happened in the last decade to bring about this kind of change?
Mark Kleiman: There have been big changes in attitudes; not as fast as on gay rights, for example, but very fast. The simplest explanation is that marijuana is more familiar than it used to be, and therefore less scary. Support for marijuana legalization grew from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, went down through 1990, and has since rebounded to an all-time high. The latest polling shows the country just about evenly split on the question “Do you think the use of marijuana should be made legal or not?” (The polls don’t generally ask about production and sale as opposed to use.)
How has the widespread development of medical marijuana operations across the country affected the ways growers manufacture and sell pot?
Bridget Freisthler: In my conversations with dispensary owners I’ve learned that the number and types of products available is increasing. I have seen cannabis energy drinks being advertised, cannabis in pill form, and cannabis in mouth strips—similar to breath-freshening strips—in addition to your traditional buds and edibles. This all speaks to a need to attract a wide variety of clientele who may have different needs. For example, patients who use air travel frequently may need different products than someone who can smoke regularly at home.
Mark Kleiman: Even in places where retailing “medical” marijuana is legal under state law, growing is still clandestine, which makes it very expensive. Full-scale national legalization would change that: the sheer production cost could fall to as little as one percent of current wholesale prices. A joint could cost as little as the packet of sugar that restaurants now put out, and some might indeed give it away to encourage food sales. That would surely lead to substantial increases in heavy marijuana use.
Bridget, how might your research help predict the effects on the ground of these policy decisions? You’ve shown that there’s no link between medical marijuana dispensaries and community crime rates, but the opposite is true for liquor stores and bars. How could widespread availability of marijuana— medically or otherwise— impact these trends?
Bridget Freisthler: The reality is we don’t know how the widespread availability of marijuana will affect crime and other problems. In addition to crime, my team continues to hear that community members and political officials are concerned about increase in youth access to marijuana, reductions in property values near the dispensaries, and increased marijuana use due to the proliferation of dispensaries. The research literature on this topic is quite thin and we are just now starting to examine what the long-term impacts of these policy decisions will be. In contrast, the literature on the effects of alcohol outlets (e.g., bars, liquor stores) has been around for almost two decades now and has shown consistent relationships of higher crime, violence, and child abuse in areas with greater densities of alcohol outlets. In general, I think it will probably be a few years before we have really good information about the effects of dispensaries on communities and be able to provide sound recommendations on how to minimize any negative effects of dispensaries on local communities.
Do you think the U.S. has a sensible approach to how we use—or abuse—marijuana? What can policy makers do to improve the situation?
Mark Kleiman: I think we should let users grow their own pot or form co-ops. I’m much less enthusiastic about commercial legalization on the alcohol model; there are just too many unknowns.
Bridget Freisthler: Drug policy is complicated. Alcohol is legal, yet we know there are a variety of negative aspects to the easy access of alcohol and long-term alcohol use. Prescription drugs are legal for medicinal use, but that hasn’t stopped the misuse of those products. We also know that drug use in adolescents and young adults negatively affects their brain development. I prefer to wait until we know more about the effects of current policies and practices on communities before advocating any one recommendation.